Sommerville says that this gives Attik the stability and backup it needs to develop. We asked Sommerville for his tips for fellow studios now facing the worst economic conditions in decades.
HOW DID YOU STEER THE COMPANY THROUGH THE 2001 RECESSION?
We’re always very much conscious that we walked out of design school, not business school, so the running of the business was handed over to a CEO, who had also been in the creative industry for ten years, who had built a creative agency and sold it to a network. We would then just concentrate on doing great work.
DID YOU HAVE TO LET MANY PEOPLE GO?
Yeah, we’ve let tons go. That was a really difficult but must-do decision. We recall lots of other agencies similar to us – quite inexperienced, cutting-edge and funky – and they didn’t want to damage that atmosphere, and I know that since then one or two of them have disappeared.
Going from 180 staff to 60 was a massive step down, and involved lots of very difficult meetings, but in some ways it was like going to a health spa – we went in battered and bruised and not very healthy, but we came out feeling much better.
And if we hadn’t have done it, we would have died – that’s the analogy that we make. Thankfully, because we’ve never slipped back into those crazy numbers of staff, we’ll never again have to sit down and say, we’ve got to let 50 per cent of our staff go.
SO YOU’RE FEELING PRETTY SECURE AT THE MOMENT, THEN?
It’s a bold statement to make, isn’t it? This is my third experience of a deep recession – the one after 9/11 and the one in 1992, and you learn something every time.
And it’s never the same, and you always feel it’s worse than before – like every time you get a cold, it’s worse than the last one. But you remember things you maybe would have done differently and you try to act on those. So we’ve got a little bit more control – not total control, but more than in the past.
WHAT ARE THE WARNING SIGNS YOU LOOK OUT FOR NOW?
In the last ten years, the US market has been our indicator of the global economy – although in the future it might be Asia – so it’s been very useful for us to be part of that US market and feel that first.
Also, our clients tell us. We’re grateful for working with many ‘superbrands’, from Coke to Toyota to Adidas, and when we can see those guys looking closely at their spends for next year, you know then that something global is taking place. You’ve really got to look out for those signs; I think in the past we’d all sailed through going, oh, we’ll be OK.
HOW SHOULD CREATIVE STUDIOS APPROACH THE RECESSION?
I think it’s the best time to grow your business: most creative companies in our country are probably small to medium-sized. And the larger ones are struggling internationally.
So I think it’s a great opportunity for smaller agencies to look upwards, look up to the bigger clients, head further up the food chain. What are scraps to one, are a feast to another agency of a smaller size.
This is the time when you can knock on a door of a client that ordinarily would say, “No, we’re happy with our larger international agency.” [At the moment] they might say, “You know what? If you can do this for that then I’ll have a conversation with you.”